Rob Calder talks to Harry Tattan-Birch from UCL about his article on recent trends in the prevalence of disposable e-cigarette vaping in Great Britain. Rob and Harry discuss the Smoking Toolkit Study, the increase in popularity of disposable vaping products, and emerging hypotheses for this change.

Harry Tattan-Birch and colleagues published a paper in Addiction, reporting a rapid growth in the use of disposable e-cigarettes in Great Britain between 2021 and 2022. In episode 49 of Addiction Audio, Rob asks him about this change in the vaping market – recalling that vaping products were originally disposable, but over time, seemed to be replaced by rechargeable devices with refillable tanks or replaceable pods. Harry explains that the original versions weren’t good at delivering nicotine, but the ‘new generation’ of disposable e-cigarettes are able to deliver nicotine effectively using similar technology to rechargeable devices.

“The original vaping products were disposable. But, they tended to be not very good at delivering nicotine, whereas these newer devices are much much better at delivering nicotine. That’s why, originally, disposable vapes didn’t gain that much popularity, and rechargeable devices became more popular. But then recently, because the technology has improved on these disposable vapes, they’re now able to deliver nicotine in a similar way.”

Original article: Rapid growth in disposable e-cigarette vaping among young adults in Great Britain from 2021 to 2022: a repeat cross-sectional survey. By Harry Tattan-Birch and colleagues. Published in Addiction (2022).

The two then discuss how e-cigarette use is much more visible than illicit drug use, and consequently, many of the changes in the nicotine market have been playing out before our eyes. Harry notes that he saw a “massive rise” in the use of disposable e-cigarettes in his social group over what seemed like a period of a couple of months. This inspired him to study whether there have been changes at a population level.

Asked ‘why should we care’ about disposable vapes becoming more popular, Harry says their environmental impact is a big concern.

“A lot of people are concerned about the environmental impact of an electronic product that you use for a few days or a week and then throw away. I’m sure many listeners have seen these disposable vapes on the floor. They do produce a lot of waste.”

Rob then asks about whether Harry has any emerging hypotheses for the change in the vaping market. Harry suggests three reasons why people may be turning to disposable vapes in increasing numbers: (1) the low up-front cost; (2) their ability to deliver nicotine smoothly (less harsh to inhale, and cooling menthol-like effect); and (3) the convenience of disposable products.

“You can just walk into a shop, buy a device, open the packet and instantly start using it. You don’t have to know anything about the coils, the concentration of e-liquid, you don’t have to charge it. It makes it much easier for people to start using that product.”

The article used data from the Smoking Toolkit Study – a monthly survey with a representative sample of adults, which enabled changes to be detected in real-time. Harry says he doesn’t think they would have been able to spot this change so quickly otherwise.

“What makes the Smoking Toolkit Study unique is that the data are collected every month, so there’s around 2,500 adults recruited each month, asked a number of questions about their smoking, vaping and drinking, and this has allowed us to see what’s going on in real-time.”

Rob remarks on the 18-fold increase in use of disposable products that the Smoking Toolkit Study data captured, which is an ‘enormous change’ by any measure, but especially in social research where statistically significant changes may still seem quite small (e.g. 0.1%). Harry says he was surprised about the magnitude of the change, especially because of how stable e-cigarette use behaviours have been before now.

“Among vapers, most people were using rechargeable devices, and that stayed stable for 10 years. Then suddenly out of the blue, disposable vapes have come along, and within a few months have taken over the nicotine market.”

Harry will be updating the figures on disposable vaping every month, so if anyone is interested in tracking this, they can email Harry to be added to the mailing list.

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity. The full podcast episode is available to download or stream here.

edited by Natalie Davies

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